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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Viewing Room

This is the war of our time.— Brian
The Viewing Room
Leonard Roberts as Kyle Carter and Samantha Wright as The Wife
(Photo: Digby Oldridge)
The Viewing Room comes to London with the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago in its pedigree. This new play by Daniel Joshua Rubin, who was the writer in residence at Steppenwolf, places a convicted man, a prisoner, in a cage in the studio flat of an ordinary, law abiding couple. Although he is in prison, they are too, as they are closely observed by this potentially dangerous and sinister stranger. It is a curious futuristic concept but a fascinating one and with so much prison overcrowding and the return of prison ships, perhaps not so far from possibility. Practicum Theatre, an exciting new initiative which encourages international collaborations and new writing and is backing this production.

Set in the near future, a white middle class couple have been supplied with the home prisoner kit, a cage, a black prisoner, an electronic manual, tracking devices and closed circuit television cameras which buzz and whirr at all hours of the day and night. They are monitored by patrolling droids. The couple are effectively in house prison warders. The man Brian Walker (James Flynn) wants to do this responsibly and well. He studies the manual, talks to the prisoner hoping to rehabilitate him, telling him the rewards for good behaviour, like a shower or special food. Brian's efforts are initially replied to with a series of aggressive grunts, scowls and looks of incredulity from Kyle Carter (Leonard Roberts). For Brian's wife (Samantha Walker), the prisoner is an attractive, virile man serving to underscore her dissatisfaction with her marriage to Brian and her lack of interest in the prison project. She is already spending evenings away from home on work related projects and returning slightly worse for wear with alcohol. She says she's thinking about applying for another job; Brian thinks she's having an affair. The omni-presence of the prisoner will further strain their relationship.

AC Wilson gives us a very atmospheric production, darkly lit with the continuous presence of the cameras with their flickering, monochrome images projected at the side of the stage. The Domestic Incarceration services monitor everyone, the red light comes on, the siren sounds and the drones are alerted to any sign of disorder. Brian reads the rules. He's shorter than his wife, and seems weaker with a slightly high pitched voice which contrasts with the deepest register of Kyle the prisoner's attention grabbing bass delivery. The situation starts to change when, as Brian sleeps in the same room, the wife comes home slightly drunk and strikes up a conversation with Kyle. She gives him supper with a knife (he looks amazed), a glass of wine and they flirt. The next morning as she vandalises the early warning system, ineffectual Brian warns her that these guys are expert at manipulating women. After the interval, there is a revelation about the prisoner which changes the nature of the task. Instead of a prisoner approaching his release date and being ripe for rehabilitation, there has been a mistake.

The prisoner too has a great sense of irony as he observes, "In a state facility, everyone's an animal. Here it's just me." The performances are tip top and Leonard Roberts who is known to many as NBC's Heroes DL Hawkins, makes his impressive London debut with great aplomb. As Kyle he is tense and sexy, angry and volatile. Samantha Wright, who looks a little like Nicole Kidman, has a good range, she knows he's dangerous but she is desperate for her freedom too. James Flynn has the hardest role and does not disappoint as conformist Brian, out of his depth both in his marriage and as a prison worker. He is a natural victim but doesn't deserve to be.

Daniel Joshua Rubin's play has some quirks but I liked the imagination and suspense of his plot in The Viewing Room and the gist of his dialogue. After the show, on the night I went, a discussion was led by barrister and QC Michael Mansfield with the cast. The evening was a benefit for Amnesty International to mark the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.

The Viewing Room
Written by Daniel Joshua Rubin
Directed by AC Wilson

Starring: Leonard Roberts, James Flynn, Samantha Wright
Design: Alex Marker
Costume Design: Fabrice Serafino
Lighting: Peter Harrison
Sound: Joel Cahan
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 0844 847 1608
Booking to 29th March 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th March 2008 performance at The Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden, Leicester Square)

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